Judge Brett Cullum has made a spiritual decision to go to Hell—if it really is furnished with art deco sensibilities and featured in the Criterion Collection.
His Excellency: If you meet our requirements, we'll be only too glad to
accommodate you. Would you be kind enough to mention, for instance, some
outstanding crime you've committed?
Is it any shock that Satan is a charming civilized man in a 1943 Ernst Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka) comedy? Or that the European director could take a philandering playboy and make him the hero of a touching love affair that spans a lifetime? Heaven Can Wait was a film lauded in its time—the frothy light comedy was nominated for a Best Picture and Director Oscar the year it was released (it lost to a little-known gem called Casablanca). But after being nominated for Academy Awards, it pretty much disappeared from pop culture. It's a bona fide classic that deserves to be seen, and Criterion has named it #291 in its growing collection.
Facts of the Case
Wealthy aristocrat Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche, Cocoon) dies, and walks down to the entrance of Hell (a place many people told him to go) to ask to be let in. Satan (called "His Excellency" in the movie) says he must first prove he deserves an eternity of eternal torment. Cleve begins to recount his lifetime of womanizing, dwelling mostly on his rather successful twenty-five year marriage to the beautiful Martha (Gene Tierney, looking radiant a year before Laura). Will Henry be damned for being a Casanova cad who ended up loved by a beautiful woman?
Heaven Can Wait is a comedy with a European sensibility produced during World War II. It's an oddity when you consider what was happening in the country at the time. Jingoistic American pride and dark noir visions were the warp and woof of the cinematic landscape. Lubitsch was a Berlin native, and wasn't in a position to offer either a "let's go to war against the Nazis" or "America is a dark scary place" film. Heaven Can Wait was a morally progressive light urban comedy that stuck out amongst the typical fare available when it was made. It refused to reference history, and was a burst of fresh air when it was released. Heaven Can Wait was an anti-hero picture unleashed in an age of heroes, a sophisticated sex comedy about a loafing philanderer.
Lubitsch collaborated quite a bit with famed screenwriter and playwright Samson Raphaelson. Raphaelson had written the play that became the first "talkie" movie made in Hollywood, The Jazz Singer. Here the pair were adapting a play called Birthday (not originally penned by Raphaelson), and working for the first time in color at 20th Century Fox studios. They had assembled a killer cast, including their leads, the infamously beautiful Gene Tierney and the debonair Don Ameche. If any pair could pull off the tale of an unfaithful husband and his devoted wife and make it charming, this was duo to accomplish it. The director was famous for his "Lubitsch touch," which meant he made movies that were full of sophisticated wit and style. He had certainly assembled the right collaborators to insure Heaven Can Wait would bear his reputation out.
The film itself is nimble, spry, and as effervescent as an Alka Seltzer thrown into a champagne cocktail. But I don't want to mislead you into thinking it doesn't pack some powerful emotional punches. Henry Van Cleve is a man who is railing against time, and trying hard to bury his pain inside the women he comes across in his time. The love affair between him and Martha is compelling, probably because the Gene Tierney character is allowed to see her husband's faults. She knows exactly what he is, and loves him regardless of it. If the movie were made today it would probably fall apart, because it would show sordid details of an over-sexed man cheating on his beautiful wife. Luckily, because of the extreme censors of the '40s, the story is made more palatable. We never get the impression that anything sordid is happening—but here's where Lubitsch is sly and crafty. He insinuates more with a look or a closed door than most modern filmmakers can with an outright fleshy orgy of sweaty close-ups made up of select body parts. It's a thinking man's comedy; an exemplary personification of the "Lubitsch touch." He finds a way for us to root for the callow man, and even root for Martha and him to find happiness any way they can. He's tricking America into opening its peculiar Midwestern morality and trading it for a more permissive European sensibility. It's a deep, beautiful film masked in a light, airy comedy, and it's wonderfully subversive.
Despite the ideas of a loafing philanderer and European morality, there really is a wonderful love story shown in Heaven Can Wait. Don Ameche and Gene Tierney get to play some heady scenes of extreme romance. There's an incredible scene where Henry pretends to be a bookstore clerk, and Martha uncovers his ruse. He tells her that he would have followed her anywhere, or become anything, just to be close to her. It's hard not to swoon as Henry pours on the charm, and it's interesting because Ameche is not as suave as some of the other leading men of the era. He has a swarthy common charm that is unique, and it's nice to see someone other than a classic Hollywood leading man helming a romance. Gene Tierney proves herself a much better actress than history seems to give her credit for. Much was always made of her looks, but she handles this material smartly and plays some really challenging, complex scenes with an assured grace. It's a pity neither of them were nominated for Oscars, given their truly classic performances here.
Criterion delivers its standard wonderful package for a movie—but not a perfect one. The transfer is not crystal clear; obviously, the film stock probably prevented a pristine transfer for the DVD. Some of Heaven Can Wait seems to have lost a lot of color, and there certainly is a fair amount of grain here. It does stand head and shoulders above many transfers, but don't expect pristine images throughout. The sound transfer preserves the original monaural experience of the film's release. It's free of any distortion, and is serviceable.
The extras seem concentrated around the famous screenwriter Samson Raphaelson. We get a documentary from 1982, hosted by Bill Moyers, that details his life and the contributions of Raphaelson to cinema. There is an audio recording of the writer getting props after a screening of Heaven Can Wait at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Also included is a lively discussion on the impact of the movie, both when it was released and today, as analyzed by two film critics. There is a treasure trove of marketing materials, too, including the original press kit, which is a complete hoot to see on the screen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Few of the extra features concentrate on Lubitsch; they consist mainly of old photos, set to recordings of his piano playing provided by his estranged daughter. I would have liked to see more on the director. In my opinion, this betrays the cinephile slant of the Criterion Collection. They don't fill in the blanks on the director, assuming most viewers know enough about the man. I would have liked to seen more on Lubitsch, because this is really one of his signature films. And there is nothing on the lead actors except some publicity shots.
Heaven Can Wait is a classic film that has been underrated for many years. It was overshadowed by some of its contemporaries, as well as by some of the greater works in Lubitsch's body of work. It's nice to see it getting the Criterion treatment, and I doubt anyone will question its place in the collection. It's a rare chance to see two stars in their prime, Don Ameche and Gene Tierney. It's a timeless tale, and Lubitsch's refusal to put much historical reference into his narrative makes it easy to watch today. Don't confuse it with the 1978 Warren Beatty movie of the same name, which only borrowed the title—that film is actually a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was called Heaven Can Wait it its original stage version. But in an odd spiritual way, Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait should hold a dear place in Beatty's heart. It was a light comedy that made a hero out of a playboy; Warren probably approved. It was a movie ahead of its time, and is all the more timeless because of it.
Heaven Can Wait is free to ascend to cinematic heaven. If the devil doesn't want Henry Van Cleve, we'll take him in to the Criterion Collection. It's a place where a great romance can live forever.
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